Teaching Cynicism

I went home from work the other day chewing on something that had been bothering me. When Ryan got home, I decided to run it past him.

I'm not cynical. I've just been taking notes.“When you were teaching senior government,” I asked, “were the kids really cynical about everything? When I overhear my kids talking about politics, it seems like they’ve all written off the entire system.”

Ryan said that he’d experienced something similar. “That’s one reason why I don’t like teaching the [required] media bias unit. We spend an entire unit teaching the kids not to trust anything that they hear or read, and they’re already being told by everyone around them that everything is corrupt and bad. They believe that the political system is rigged, that their vote doesn’t count, that the bipartisan system is evil. And then we wonder why young people don’t vote.”

I found myself looking into a dark mirror. As an English teacher, I pride myself on teaching critical thinking and diverse perspectives. I think that the key purpose behind what I do is to teach students to be able to communicate effectively with their worlds AND to understand what their worlds are communicating to them, and that involves being able to cut through the rhetoric and know what to trust. I’ve always approached this from the notion that teenagers are naive, vulnerable to manipulation — that they tend to blindly trust the media or their favorite celebrity or their families/friends, and that they need to have their eyes opened so that they can think and decide for themselves.

And so I — along with my colleagues — teach really great rhetoric units where we parse advertisements and articles, dragging pathos into harsh lights for interrogation, tracking how ethos and logos push our decision-making process in different ways. We have long, sometimes heated discussions about the way the world really works and how to “make it” in a system that often seems weighted against us. We teach research units where we drive home the point that you can’t trust everything you read online — that there are very legitimate-looking websites out there run by bigots, conspiracy theorists, and satirists — and most shockingly, that the “news” program playing every evening at home may not be unbiased news at all.

These, I think, are good things for young people to know. If I can convince even a handful of students that commentators like O’Reilly and Olbermann aren’t reliable arbiters of information, then that’s a job well done. If my kids leave my class and never fall victim to believing an Onion article is true, then that is a measure of success that I’ll happily accept.

Still… at what point do we show students the champions of honest journalism? At what point do we teach trust instead of skepticism?

I began thinking about the literature that we traditionally teach in our high schools. (I say “traditionally” because my school is piloting a new curriculum that shelves much of the traditional canon — but I thought of the texts that are read in our neighboring districts as well.) What are we reading, and what do those texts teach?

The Great Gatsby teaches us that people are shallow and awful, that love is a lie of convenience and false memory, that the American Dream is at best a flickering illusion and at worst a nightmare. The Scarlet Letter casts doubt on the trustworthiness of religion and society. Ender’s Game depicts a world where adults manipulate kids, where violence and shows of strength are the answer to many problems, where genocide is acceptable when committed against those who are very different than us. To Kill a Mockingbird shows that justice does not always prevail. Animal Farm teaches us that some animals are more equal than others; 1984 paints a picture of a deeply corrupt system to which students inevitably draw parallels to their own views of government. Lord of the Flies asserts that all of us are inherently evil under the surface. Hamlet teaches us to trust no one; Romeo and Juliet teaches that love and family can be destructive forces. Where is the redemption and hope in Of Mice and Men? Where is it in Frankenstein? Heck, even in one of my new classes, we read Little Brother with its central idea that young people should trust no one over the age of 30.

Do any of our assigned texts have an inarguably positive message? Perhaps The Odyssey, in which goodness and loyalty prevail — and to find it, we go back to a text written thirteen centuries ago.

Even as I write this, I’m arguing with myself. These pieces of literature are great classics because they are dark, because they are conflicted without any clear final-chapter sunlit resolution. And what I’ve written is admittedly the bleaker take on all of those texts; there are certainly sunnier messages to be taken from (many of) them (I maintain that there’s nothing positive to be taken from Ethan Frome).

But do we? Do we focus on the hopeful, the uplifting? Or do we underline the darkness, reinforcing what is apparently a pre-existing state of cynicism in our students?

On Facebook, a student of mine wishes that he was old enough to vote against “these clowns” as he posts a cartoon labeling Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden as hypocrites. Another, who is impressively well-informed and wants to major in political science, shares great articles and provides his own commentary — in which he sees no glimmer of hope from either candidate and expresses his belief that no one should vote for either major party ticket. My colleague assigns students to draw satirical cartoons and collects posters depicting the candidates as cash-hungry cronies conspiring against the American people.

I don’t know what to think.

There’s definitely a part of me that is shaking her head, wondering when I turned into such a Pollyanna — and that part of me believes and will continue to believe that it is imperative that our children don’t reach adulthood ignorant of the world and those who would take advantage of them. It is so important that they don’t go out into the world without their eyes opened. I know too many adults who blindly believe anything they hear so long as it comes from someone with the right little letter next to their name on the ballot, too many adults who wouldn’t know satire if it bit them, too many adults who believe that [fill-in-the-blank biased “news” show or column] is trustworthy.

And then there is another part of me that weeps to think that they may go through young adulthood — and perhaps their entire lives — blind to the possibility of good… that they may never find inspiration and hope in a political candidate… that they may never trust the systems built by the people, for the people. I picture them as old men and women shaking gnarled fists at “the machine,” having never taken the time to realize that like any machine, it is only as good or bad as those operating it. Or worse, I picture them NOT shaking their fists, because they grew so cynical that they stopped paying attention at all.

Maybe this is just me getting old and falling into the recurring trap of worrying that today’s kids can’t live up to past generations. Maybe this is just me working my way through year five as a secondary educator and worrying about the efficacy and value of my practice. Maybe it’s just election season burnout.

But it bugs me.

Define "cynical"

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